Chapter 42: Interview

"I'm sorry you had to see that. Sir."

It was the next day. Johnson, unable to focus on interviewing anyone else after the scene in the medlabs, had closed up shop for the day, given Hawk his office back, and retired to visitor's quarters with Alex Cabot's medical folder. He'd barely gotten any sleep that night, contrasting the terrified, mindless woman he'd seen with the smiling confident blonde in the original mission file Hawk had provided; and when he did sleep, images of the hideous damage she'd sustained in the photos Doc had taken when she first arrived haunted his dreams. He'd come to the medlabs this morning fully braced for a repeat of the evening before, but Doc told him Alex was awake and lucid. He'd still approached her bed hesitatingly, but she looked up at him with a wan smile and apologized.

"It's…okay," he said quietly, sitting in a chair by her bed. Not too close, and he scanned her immediate vicinity for sharp objects.

"They took them all away. No sharp objects in the same room with me, Sir." She saw his surprised look. "You're checking to see if I have anything I could injure you with."

"Yes," he admitted. "You noticed."

"Yes, I noticed." She stared at her fingers, picked at the edge of an adhesive bandage on the side of her index finger. "I'm sorry. I don't react well to certain types of medicines…never have. Painkillers are one. My parents found out when I was six that if I had just one cc too much I'd turn into a raving lunatic they didn't know and were terrified of. I'd broken my arm in an accident and the doctor gave me just a little too much, hoping it would help me sleep, on my Mom's insistence. It didn't work. It's in my file, a warning in every piece of personnel paperwork I have, but when I first got here they were more focused on saving my life than reading my paperwork, and I was too far gone to have any bad reactions. Now that I'm recovering, it's coming back again." She gave him a crooked smile. "I'm sorry, Sir."

"Don't be. It's not your fault." And he realized that he meant it. "And don't call me 'Sir.' I'm not your commanding officer, and you aren't one of my soldiers. And it's not your fault."

"Actually, yes it is. This whole thing is my fault. I was blind and stupid."

"You'll have to explain that to me, because I can't see it. How is this your fault? From what I read in everyone's mission reports you were deliberately placed in an untenable position."

A short laugh, full of bitterness. "Clancy approached me almost a year and a half ago about taking part in a deep cover mission to take out Velez, when he expanded his 'corporate offerings' to include child sex slaves stolen from the DRC and trafficked around the world. I agreed because I wanted my life back. I lost two years of my life hiding from him in federal WitSec. When he was arrested by the ICC for crimes against humanity, WitSec thought I was safe and let me go. I didn't even think about him anymore until I came to the ICC and I saw him sitting in a jail cell one day. I couldn't believe it, but he knew exactly who I was, and he told me I was on his shit list." She pressed her fingers to her mouth. "Um. Sorry."

Johnson had to smile. "It's ok. I'm a soldier, I've heard worse."

It was her turn to smile, a smile that had no bitterness, anger, or other emotion in it than simple humor, and it lit up her face and her haunted blue eyes. "I'm sure you have." She sobered. "Anyway, things just went downhill from there. No matter where I was, something happened. Panama City. Rio. Paris, London, Amsterdam, The Hague, Washington DC. Something as simple as putting acid on the handle of my suitcase so it would eat into my hands, to blowing up my rental car, blowing up my hotel room, and even having a sniper take a potshot at me." She brought one hand up and parted the hair on the right side of her head, the side that hadn't been cut, and showed him a straight, hairless scar on her scalp. "The bullet grazed me. I was very, very lucky that I was wearing a big, floppy hat that day and the sniper couldn't tell exactly where my head really was." Johnson nodded soberly; looking at that scar, she had been lucky.

"I got paranoid after I ordered takeout food one night, had to run out and deliver some emergency paperwork, and came back to find that a rat that had climbed onto the table to eat what I'd left was stone dead with a piece of chicken still in its teeth. I was terrified. I wanted to run home, to New York, get away from everything, but Clancy…" she sighed. "Clancy met me at the embassy when I went to ask them how I'd go about terminating my volunteer work with the ICC and going home. He told me, and I believed him, that if I went home Velez would follow me. He would strike at me, and then how would I feel if he got one of my friends, my coworkers, someone I knew? And I thought it over, and I realized I couldn't risk it. My best friend is a cop; her life is dangerous enough already. I didn't have to exacerbate it by my simple presence. I asked Clancy what I should do, and he told me about this operation the UN had going to try and take out Velez. He'd been a target for years but they hadn't been able to get him; so they were going to go after a well-known associate, and that happened to be Zimurinda in the DRC. I would be the bait, the peanut butter to lure the mouse out, and UN military forces would close on him, trap him, and arrest him. Once they got him, they'd be able to get him to roll on Velez. All of this was carefully timed to take place before Velez's trial, and Clancy assured me nothing could go wrong."

She went on to tell him quietly about the first failed expedition, the young soldiers she'd seen die for her, her escape and the way she'd been saved. He shuddered visibly when she told him about hiding in the coffin to escape searchers; then remained impassive as she described her meeting at Goma Airpiort with the Joes and the subsequent events that followed.

"You don't need to go into details of your time in the militia camp," he told her gently when he saw she was starting to fight for words. "I saw your medical reports and I spoke with Warrant Officer Faireborn. Both those sources painted a pretty clear picture of what happened." He hesitated a moment. "Warrant Officer Faireborn insisted that I speak to you to get a clear picture of the events; that's what drew me here. But he tells me that you haven't spoken to him…he thinks you can't bear to see him because you remind him of what you went through."

Alex stared at the sheet covering her. "It's not that. I don't want to remind him of…of what happened."

"That you raped him?" she looked up, startled, and Johnson nodded. "I thought that might be part of it. Let me explain something to you, Miss Cabot. Things are done during war and in times of combat that would never happen anywhere else and would never be condoned anywhere else. But neither you nor he was responsible for your actions; you were both helpless in hostile territory and you did what you had to in order to survive. He understands that and I understand that; it's one of the things called 'military expediency'. You do what you have to in order to survive, and then don't regret it later. All right?" She nodded, plainly unconvinced, and he sighed.

"Every soldier here has had instruction on what to do in hostile territory, what to do when you've been captured, how to withstand various techniques that may be used. They're called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape courses—SERE training,I'm sure you've heard of it in the news, that military operatives used those techniques in prisoner of war detainee camps." She nodded. "Despite the deplorable uses to which those techniques have been put, educating our soldiers, our operatives, our people, in these techniques and what to expect if they are captured is an important, though universally disliked, part of each elite soldier's training. Every single one of us hopes we will never have to use that knowledge. Most of us never have to. Very, very few of us go unprepared into a situation like yours, and I regret terribly that you were placed in that situation without adequate training and knowledge. I will be addressing that, believe me, with your superiors at the ICC and to contacts in the UN. While every effort is made to eliminate civilian involvement in dangerous situations like these, things happen that are-not exactly under our control or purview—and there are similar, though not as…intensive…training for military intelligence personnel and overseas diplomatic envoys. We've learned from the lessons your mission taught us, Miss Cabot, and no one will ever go through what you've endured again. I promise you that."

"Unless they do so without your permission and knowledge. Like Clancy did, going rogue." He stared at her dumbfounded. "Am I wrong?"

"No, no, you're…he straightened, cleared his throat. "You will keep that to yourself, Miss Cabot."

"Of course. Has anyone else figured it out yet that you're investigating something the US military wasn't aware of? Would you have approved it if you had known?"

"No. Absolutely not. I would have shut it down the moment I knew a civilian was involved." He frowned. "How did you know that Clancy was rogue?"

"You said it. 'Things that are not under our control or purview'. You didn't know. Clancy was acting alone, passing orders to General Hawk and making him think they were from higher up. That's why his complaint came as such a surprise."

"You are a damned smart woman, Miss Cabot."

# # #

And if Alex Cabot had figured it out, the rest of the Joes wouldn't be that far behind.

He abandoned the pretense of an investigation and called a meeting. Of everyone on the base, from General Hawk to Corporal Krieger to the enlisted crew.

Alex Cabot was also there, Allie having pulled that NYPD sweatshirt over her head and Doc and Lifeline having wheeled her hospital bed into the briefing room. He insisted that she be there, since her fate was closely tied in with the results of the investigation.

"I read the reports. I spoke with a few of you. I don't feel I need to speak with the rest of you in order to make my decision." He squared his shoulders, looked at the assembled soldiers. "Before I tell you what I decided, does anyone have anything further to add?"

Hawk stepped forward. "I do."

He took a deep breath. "I have no issues with whatever you decide regarding me and my people. We are your soldiers, under your orders, and if you decide to discharge or court-martial any of us, that is your right. But I am asking you to please consider the threat to Alex Cabot's life. Cesar Velez has been pursuing Ms. Cabot for five years; it is through sheer luck and her own ingenuity and watchfulness that she has escaped him this long.

"He laid some extensive plans to place her in a position from which he could not only ensure her demise; he could savor it. Master Sergeant O'Hara's operation confirmed it; he laid the groundwork, subverted contacts within the ICC and the US Army and possibly the UN, to capture, rape, and torture Alexandra Cabot. He didn't expect to deal with us and our skilled, elite soldiers, who saw a bad situation get worse and yet kept their heads and drew on all their training and resources to complete the mission and get Ms. Cabot out alive when her fate was all but certain. But he has escaped jail now; he is free, and he has the considerable resources of his drug smuggling, arms-dealing, and human trafficking franchises to assist him in the pursuit of his vengeance. As of this moment, I am completely sure that there is not a single person on this base to whom I would not entrust her life; I only hope that, should your decision be to place her elsewhere outside this base, they are similarly trustworthy and skilled.

"We have been referring to Ms. Cabot as a civilian; on paper, she is, not having gone through the same military training as each of the rest of us. But she has gone through training of a different sort, just as rigorous and exacting. Her battlefield is a courtroom, and she fights with words, not bullets; but I ask you to remember that we all fight for the same thing. We fight to protect our country—but what is our country but the people? The borders of the United States have not always been where they are now, but that did not make us any less of a country. Our country is our people, and those like Miss Cabot who ensure those laws are followed are no less a soldier than we are.

"We take our training outside our country, to bring order and independence and freedom to those who aren't blessed with it; we try to bring about change for the better. Ms. Cabot tries to do the same; tries to bring order and justice and freedom from persecution to those who most need it; to prosecute and bring justice to those whom the global community deems to be criminals. Her efforts are just as valuable as ours, her right to safety and security and personal freedom just as valid. She is as much a soldier as we are and deserves the same consideration and respect we would give a fellow officer. If one of our officers' lives were endangered by a madman's personal vendetta, we would ensure that officer's safety by placing that officer out of reach; we can do no less for Alexandra Cabot." He stopped speaking.

Johnson heaved a huge sigh. "I spoke with Ms. Cabot this morning. I find myself impressed with her sense of fairness, justice, personal integrity, and particularly her intelligence," And there was no mistaking the smile that he cast in her direction, to which she responded by a single acknowledging nod. "After having seen her medical reports and heard testimony concerning what she endured, I confess I am completely appalled at Clancy's indelicate handling of the situation, which is exacerbated by the fact that this entire operation on which you went was neither known to, nor sanctioned by, the United States military." Mutters erupted around the room as everyone absorbed that fact.

"Given that fact," he waited for the muttering to die down, "General Hawk, you are to be commended for your level-headed handling of this entire situation. Your personnel, while guilty of numerous violations of military protocol, did so in order to save a life that should never have been placed in danger, did their best to thwart the as-yet-unclear plans of one rogue commanding officer. You are all to be commended for your bravery under fire in the jungles of the DRC, in the halls of The Hague, and also here at base. We are trained in combat, and for us it is easy to pick up a gun and fire at an enemy; it is less easy for us to face a superior officer and defy orders, particularly since the military inculcates obedience to orders within the military culture. I will include this in my report to the Secretary of Defense and recommend that you all receive special commendations."

"As for Ms. Cabot," he said loudly over the din of excited murmurs, "Ms. Cabot, I can never apologize enough for what you went through. Your life should never have been placed in danger; you should never have had to endure what you have. There are no words I can say to alleviate your suffering, nothing I or the American military can do to give you back your sense of self. We cannot undo what has already been done. I wince at the thought of the hard road that awaits you as you struggle to recover emotionally, mentally and physically.

"However, I am pleased to be able to give you one thing; security. As you recover and try to commence your life, picking up the pieces and putting your shattered life together, there is nowhere safer for you than here. You will get no better care anywhere; there are friends here who care about you, who will do their best to help you pick up the pieces and try to move on. They will guard you to the best of their ability, do everything that is humanly possible to keep you safe and prevent a repeat of this deplorable situation. Until the situation is resolved and your life is no longer in danger, you will remain here. I will stay in touch with General Hawk to keep him apprised of our progress and our resolutions."

Cheers erupted in the briefing room; Ettienne leaned over and gave Alex a fierce hug.

Which she returned without flinching.

Author's note: Okay, so that's it for this second part. Don't worry, we're only about halfway through, there's plenty of story still left to come and I'm going to try and finish the sequel this weekend and start the third novel in the trilogy next week, so hang in there! Look for the third part of this novel; it's titled 'GI Joe Special Missions: Manhattan' and the first two chapters of it are going up synonymously with the last couple chapters of this one. Look for it!